Palestinian-American Etaf Rum’s debut novel tackles complex questions of women’s status in traditional Arab culture.
The year is 1990; the place, occupied Palestine. A teenage girl named Isra finds herself being visited by male suitors. Her parents are keen to marry her off, for girls are a burden, almost a curse on an Arab family. Isra finally agrees to marry Adam, who lives with his family in New York. Isra must face a new life, living with Adam's parents, the culturally traditional Fareeda and Khaled.
Her first job, once set up in the dismal basement of her in-laws, is to produce a son. Life becomes increasingly stressful as Isra, to her family’s disapproval and later outright hostility, gives birth to daughter after daughter, four in all. Not only is Isra isolated, forbidden to leave the house alone for fear of what the local Arab community might think, but she is also the victim of domestic violence. What makes the violence even more heinous is the fact that Fareeda and Khaled calmly accept the fact that their son, Adam, beats his wife, all under their own roof. Fareeda even gives Isra make-up lessons on how to cover the purple bruises.
A second timeline jumps ahead eighteen years, to 2018. Isra and Adam, we learn, have died in a car crash. Fareeda and Khaled are now looking after the four daughters, a task they have performed for the last decade. The eldest daughter, Deya, finds herself in the typical predicament of a young Arab woman. The pressure is on her to find a husband, get married and become a submissive wife. Deya resists and rebels against Fareeda's constant interventions, but fears she hasn't the courage to follow her own convictions, defy her grandparents and go to university.
Things reach a climax as the interweaving timelines reveal that Fareeda and Khaled have kept many secrets from Deya and her sisters. When Deya meets Fareeda's only daughter, Sarah, who ran away from home as a teenager, bringing shame upon the family, she learns a shocking truth about her parents’ marriage.
A Woman is No Man is a brave, honest novel that addresses serious issues of domestic violence, the status of women, the difficulties of living between two cultures and the trauma of having to leave your place of birth due to war and military occupation. Etaf Rum has written a compelling narrative, building up a harrowing portrait of a deeply unhappy family that at the same time reveals a rigidly conservative culture that is appalling for women, and not much better for men.
While it would be easy to make this a black and white story of good women and evil men, Etaf Rum takes a nuanced approach, explaining but not condoning the violent trap so many women find themselves in. Even some of the novel's worst characters – Fareeda, whose treatment of Isra is often callous; Adam, who constantly beats his wife – are sympathetically drawn. We are given back stories – often devastating - to help understand their behaviour.
This is a first novel by Etaf Rum, and a few small caveats must be mentioned. The dialogue can be lacklustre and pedestrian, and there are characters that lack definition. Sometimes alternating between the timelines of Isra and Deya, it's easy to forget where you are: both mother and daughter can appear almost identical. But these are small complaints in a novel that is extraordinarily brave in pulling back the veil on the hidden world of domestic violence and misery. Despite occasional clumsiness, A Woman is No Man is constantly absorbing.
An important book that breaks taboos.
A Woman is No Man, by Etaf Rum. Published by HarperCollins. RRP: $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books